Duke still facing low expectations
While Duke football took a major step last year with a long-awaited bowl trip, the Blue Devils saw Monday they still have proving to do.
Coming off last season’s 6-7 campaign that included a Belk Bowl appearance, the Blue Devils were picked to finish last in the seven-team ACC Coastal Division in a poll of media attending the Football Kickoff at Grandover Resort.
Preseason polls have little determination on what actually happens on the field, of course. But after winning more games last season than any Duke team since 1994, the Blue Devils believed they had shown they weren’t such a downtrodden program anymore.
Perhaps that’s not true after all.
“It makes me realize we have a lot of culture work left to do,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “People really aren’t as educated as we think they are about who we are.”
The Blue Devils went 3-5 in the ACC last season, matching the 2009 team for the most league wins during Cutcliffe’s five seasons as their head coach.
While that accomplishment and the first bowl bid in 18 years are things the players are proud of, Cutcliffe reminds his players more work is necessary.
“I expect us to be a bowl team this year,” Cutcliffe said. “Nothing we’ve done the last five is good enough. This isn’t wishful. This is the expectation, the demands we put on ourselves.”
For all of last season’s accomplishments, the Blue Devils also know they didn’t garner all the success they could have. Duke lost its last five games, including a 48-34 loss to Cincinnati in the Belk Bowl.
Duke appeared primed to win that postseason game when it drove inside the Cincinnati 5 with 1:20 to play and the score tied at 34. But a fumble by running back Josh Snead gave Cincinnati the ball and the Bearcats scored two touchdowns in the final minute to win.
“If we don’t drop the one ball and we win, what’s the difference in what everyone else expects?” Cutcliffe said. “I really want the team to understand that our expectations should be far tougher than anyone else’s.”
The bowl loss, combined with a 52-45 loss to Miami in the regular-season finale, show how close Duke was to an even better season.
The week before the Miami game, the Blue Devils trailed Georgia Tech 28-24 entering the fourth quarter. But the Yellow Jackets scored twice to win by 18 points.
Earlier in the season, Duke jumped to a 20-7 lead at Virginia Tech only to allow the Hokies to roar back and win 41-20.
“We have just got to finish,” Duke quarterback Anthony Boone said. “That’s all we have to do. We finish Virginia Tech game, Georgia Tech and Miami and it’s a different year. That’s our big thing is to finish.’
A big part of doing that this season will be improvement on the defensive side. Duke finished last in the 12-team ACC by allowing 36 points per game last season. The Blue Devils were No. 11 in passing defense (allowing 267.6 yards per game) and No. 11 in total defense (allowing 469.2 yards per game).
Cutcliffe believes his team’s defensive front, long a point of struggle for Duke teams, is equipped to improve those numbers. Duke returns starters Kenny Anunike and Justin Foxx at defensive end as well as Jamal Bruce at nose guard and Sydney Sarmiento at defensive tackle.
Linebacker C.J France is back at one linebacker position while redshirt junior Kelby Brown, a productive player when healthy, is penciled in as a starter at the other linebacker after sitting out all of last season.
“We’re going to be better,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re more experienced up front where it all starts. I have concerns that we’re going to have to play some young guys on the back end. But we can help those guys.”
Duke will be making some systematic changes on defense aimed at limiting the big plays – for large gains -- teams were able to execute last season against it. During the offseason, the Blue Devils have worked on agility drills aimed at improving their change of direction skills.
“We have got to have guys who can play in space,” Cutcliffe said. “The width of the field is used more than ever (by offenses). We have really worked hard at evaluating guys who can change directions.”